Patriots put Super Bowl championship in past

FOXBORO, Mass. -- On the first day of training camp last summer, the then-defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Bucs seemed even more preoccupied by history than by the torrid heat that swelled in waves off their training camp practice fields.

There was considerable discussion about how the deeds of 2002 would be relegated to the dustbin of time if the Bucs didn't follow their Super Bowl XXXVII victory with a second championship. And lots of talk of how the dominating Tampa Bay defense would never get its due unless it got another title ring. Sad sack comedian Rodney Dangerfield never fretted over a lack of respect like Tampa Bay players did that day.

Flash forward to New England's initial training camp practice here Thursday afternoon and, while Patriots players knew nothing of the Bucs concerns of the previous summer, it was as if they had learned this important lesson by osmosis: Just as tomorrow is promised to no man in the NFL, the deeds of yesterday don't matter much, either.

And so the Patriots, with only a few trite reminders from coach Bill Belichick about how last year's accomplishments should be tucked away in a scrap book, began a new chapter with the 2003 season squarely in the rear-view mirror and fading fast. The fanfare is over and now it's time for focus.

The renowned forward-thinker, Belichick already has his team, well, thinking forward. His preference is mystery over history. The story of what is to come and not what has already transpired.

"History?" countered do-it-all linebacker Mike Vrabel, when asked if the Pats harbored any notions about how they will be judged over time. "That's not a factor around here. The only history I worry about is what I did on the last play. And 30 seconds later, that's a memory, too. Uh-uh. I'll worry about history when I'm sitting in a rocker somewhere."

Never mind that the Patriots figure to be sitting in a chair of another kind -- the cat bird's seat -- when the regular season commences. When it comes to recalling last season, there is a kind of collective and selective amnesia that is pervasive across the roster, a palpable disregard for how the Patriots might stack up against some of the other teams that clearly dominated the league over stretches of the recent past.

Those gaudy rings that owner Bob Kraft doled out to his players earlier in the spring are, for the most part, stashed in a safe-deposit box. What rings truest now for this team is what lies ahead, and even some rookies acknowledged the challenge will be a lot more daunting than Thursday's practice, a non-contact 90 minutes that eased the Patriots back into the football flow.

As if by rote, New England veterans can recite the recent litany of teams that captured a Super Bowl title one season, and then failed to even qualify for the playoffs the next. It is a list that, of course, includes the Pats themselves. And there are still 19 players on the roster who experienced firsthand the ignominious 2002 fall from grace, when the Pats went just 9-7, and never got a postseason opportunity to defend their crown.

In a candid moment, star defensive lineman Richard Seymour conceded the memory of 2002 was a motivating factor, and even allowed that winning a third championship in a four-year span might merit the Patriots a place among the top franchises in modern NFL history. Seymour quickly, though, got back in mental lockstep with the gospel according to Belichick, and turned the conversation to more immediate business.

"If you want to make history," Seymour said, "then you've actually got to forget about history. That might sound confusing, you know, but it's the truth. No one is going to give us anything based on last year or on (2001), when we won (the Super Bowl) for the first time, OK? It's all about right now. It's about this team. And, even though we have a lot of guys back, just look around, this is a new team."

Indeed, while there are old goals, Belichick has created an environment in which not even the most senior players take anything for granted here. That every season begins as a new one, that human memory banks are meant to be annually purged, is a common theme in the NFL as a whole. For whatever reason, Belichick has managed to lift the articulation of that message to art-form status, and his players often speak in Bill-talk when reacting to questions about the past.

There is, for sure, an automaton feel to some conversations. And players often seem too rehearsed, for fear a poorly phrased response might earn them a demerit from the man whose persona and methodologies supercedes everything else here. Then again, football is a game in which success is principally based on shared mindset, and the ever-diligent Patriots are mindful of not setting themselves up for a fall.

Most players might not want to hug Belichick, but they have, at least publicly, embraced his philosophies.

Said the traditionally disgruntled tailback Corey Dillon, who came to the Patriots in an April trade, after seven mostly horrid seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals: "You hear some stuff about (Belichick) but, ask any guy in the league where he would most want to play, and this is the place. This is a franchise right now that gets it, you know, and it's a team that everyone else wants to kind of copy."

What the league's premier coach would most like to emulate is the passion and the precision of last season, when the Pats rang up 15 consecutive victories, and were pretty much acknowledged as one of the top outfits of the past two decades. In that regard, while his team has changed some, Belichick hasn't much altered his approach. After the cozy practice of Thursday, things got physical again Friday, and the hitting certainly got everyone's attention.

Belichick allowed on Thursday that he has never been part of a good team that had a bad training camp. He is determined, as are his veteran players, to make sure that the summer proceeds as planned. And that means looking forward to defending a crown the players like to pretend doesn't exist. A couple guys admitted on Thursday and Friday that they are aware there is only one other team, the Dallas Cowboys of mid-'90s, that captured three Super Bowl championships in a four-year stretch.

Not surprisingly, of course, none of those players would acknowledge it on the record.

"As far as we're concerned," said cornerback Ty Law, "last year never happened. It's all about right here and right now. That's all that matters."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.